It seems like an age since we had an HTC flagship, the HTC 10, as the company chose to wait so that it could include the Snapdragon 835, the latest generation of Qualcomm chipset in its new device.
HTC is once again leaving nothing to chance, taking the concept launched with the previous U handsets - U Play and U Ultra - and producing a third, the flagship, aiming to hit the ball out of the park.
If we had a dollar for every time we said that HTC needed a hit, we'd have more cash than the beleaguered smartphone manufacturer. So is the HTC U11 that phone?
HTC U11 design
- Liquid surface design in striking colours
- Gorilla Glass 5 front and back
- Conventional display aspect
- IP67 waterproofing
The HTC U11 might look familiar to HTC fans, because it follows the path laid by the HTC U Ultra and Play announced earlier in 2017. That sees a switch from HTC's metal unibody design, to a design that uses glass front and back.
That's quite the switch, but in a market now dominated by metal phones, it's no bad thing. No one can deny that the HTC U11 is unique. The colours created by HTC's use of glass are inimitable, layered with depth, the sort of finish you might find on a custom car paint job. This isn't a flat grey that looks the same from all directions, it's a shifting shimmer, a dynamic finish that looks wonderful.
Take the Amazing Silver pictured here. We'd normally baulk from such a name, but even in the short time we had with this new phone, you can't help but notice how many colours come out of it. Sometimes it's a cold blue, sometimes it's lavender, sometimes it's like a mirror, reflecting your image back. Boring it is not.
But a fingerprint magnet it is. Metal has the advantage of mostly not showing oily fingerprint marks, which is really what lead the market to be filled with metal phones (that and the strength). The HTC U11 wipes clean easily enough, but you might find that the lighter finishes keep their looks better than the darker. Still, cleaning isn't a problem and fingerprints just wipe off, unless you're smearing your hands with Norwegian Formula six times a day.
The construction itself is rather like the Samsung Galaxy S models, pairing glass front and back with a metal core that makes up the edges. Everything is beautifully sculpted with a high quality finish and you get IP67 water resistance, meaning that HTC is keeping up with the likes of Apple and Samsung in this handset.
Unlike Samsung, this is a regular aspect device with a 16:9 display, that means there's some space above and below the display, the front housing the fingerprint scanner. Although we didn't test this, if it performs like that of the HTC 10, we'll be perfectly happy. Some may even say that sticking to the conventional gives the HTC U11 appeal that Samsung's radical design change in the Galaxy S8 loses.
HTC U11: Hardware and display
- 5.5-inch SLCD3 2560 x 1440 pixel display, 534ppi
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, 4 or 6GB RAM
- Dual SIM or microSD, 64 or 128GB storage
- 3000mAh battery
Sticking to a 16:9 display leaves the HTC U11 in familiar territory. It measures 5.5-inches on the diagonal with a 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution for 534ppi. It's topped with Gorilla Glass 5 to keep it free of scratches, and there's the neat 2.5D curve at the edges like the HTC 10.
Also familiar is the Super LCD 5 panel. Rather than using AMOLED which is gaining favour in smartphones, HTC is using LCD. The HTC 10 was also Super LCD 5 and we had no problems with it. It might not have quite the vigour of Samsung's displays (both in terms of vibrancy of colour and brightness), but first impressions are good from the time we've spent with it.
There's no mention of anything like HDR on this display: where Samsung and LG have both pushed HDR capabilities in mobile displays on the LG G6 and Samsung Galaxy S8, presumably to support the TV HDR ecosystem they offer, HTC doesn't appear to be heading down that route.
HTC confirmed that the timing of the U11 launch was related to the availability of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset. This is Qualcomm's latest and greatest, moving to a 10nm architecture and promising efficiencies along the way. Expect it to be faster and make better use of the 3000mAh battery than previous generation devices.
It's difficult to judge how the HTC U11 will perform in the real world, but we'd expect it to be perfectly slick, not only because it's loaded with powerful hardware, but because of HTC's long experience in optimising software.
Perhaps strange is that while everyone gets the same chipset (unlike Samsung), there are two different RAM versions. The standard phone gets 4GB RAM paired with 64GB storage, sitting alongside a boosted device with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. Both have a multi-purpose slot that's either dual SIM, or accepting microSD.
Exactly why there's two different loadouts and exactly which phone you'll be able to get where, we're not quite sure. However, we expect that the 6GB version will be aimed toward regions like China. How the performance will vary, again we don't know, but if HTC is going head-to-head on the spec sheet, this will certainly help it compete.
HTC U11: The big squeeze
- Squeeze gesture customisable
- Edge Sense
The biggest talking point about the HTC U11 is likely to be its support for a new interaction, squeezing. HTC pitched squeeze as a natural "intimate" gesture, something that we all know how to do. Before we slam it for being a gimmick, let's just say it is a very natural thing to do and it works surprisingly well.
Backed by haptics, there's a gentle acknowledgement of your squeeze, so you know you've done it. You can customise the action - both long and short squeezes - so that you can launch an app or execute a particular action. That might be a squeeze of the locked phone to launch the camera and a further squeeze to focus and take the shot. A long squeeze in the camera will switch from front to back camera. Simple.
Bundled together under the banner of Edge Sense, the new squeeze gesture will be supported by lots of native apps on the phone. For example, squeezing when the keyboard is open will launch voice entry so that you can speak your message. In many ways, Edge Sense is designed to make things easier.
HTC will also be supporting every other Android app in Google Play, which is a big commitment. To do so, there will be an app to download that will essentially let you say what you want squeeze to do in other third-party apps. This controller app won't be available at launch, but should be available from July 2017.
Those concerned that simply gripping the phone will be mistaken for a squeeze gesture shouldn't: when you setup the phone you can specify how hard squeezes will be and you can easily change this level. That will mean that holding the phone isn't mistaken for a gesture.
Of course we've not had the time to fully test this in the real world: living with the phone for longer will reveal whether squeeze becomes a useful addition, or if this point of differentiation gets forgotten - after all, the phone still operates as every other phone does if you choose not to use squeeze.
HTC U11: Software and Sense
- Google Assistant
- Amazon Alexa
- Android with HTC Sense
- Sense Companion
HTC's recent devices have been peeling away features in Sense and offering stock Android apps as the default. This is exactly what you get in the HTC U11, an Android Nougat device with HTC's light Sense layered over the top.
For anyone running the HTC 10 with the latest Nougat update, you very much know what the U11 looks like. In many ways, the closer proximity to Android means there's less bloat and no duplication of apps, but with HTC still bringing its launcher and a few tweaks across the UI.
Set alongside the Google Pixel, however, HTC Sense now seems to offer few advantages and we could go as far as saying that Google's tweaks in the Pixel make it a little more interesting. Both stand in stark contrast to Samsung's complete overhaul in TouchWiz; while the Galaxy S8 has been widely praised on the software front, we're not sure people will be getting so exciting about the HTC U11 as it all feels a little too familiar.
The standard arrangement of having BlinkFeed ready to feed you content feels a little dated now, especially when it's so easy to get to content from all those source's native apps in a flash. There's power in this phone and our first impression is that the software flies.
Sense Companion is in place once again, aiming to guide and advise as it did on the HTC U Ultra, but we still think we're waiting for Companion to realise its potential, with HTC confirming that there will be updates in June, bringing smart alarms and more details on phone usage.
Elsewhere you have Google Assistant - able to be launched with a long squeeze from the home page - as well as Amazon's Alexa. HTC isn't being picky, it wants to offer you the choice of assistant so you can do whatever you like. However, again, Alexa won't be on the phone at launch, it will be enabled in the July update - and support US and UK English, as well as German.
HTC U11: BoomSound Hi-Fi gets better
- USonic headphones
- BoomSound Hi-Fi
- Active noise cancellation
BoomSound is one of HTC's greatest offerings. Although we don't now have the big front-firing speakers, HTC has recreated the BoomSound magic in Hi-Fi edition by using the ear speaker and the second speaker to bring the noise. On the HTC 10 it worked and we'd still rank HTC as offering some of the best quality and highest volumes from a smartphone.
On the HTC U11, this is tweaked slightly, using the entire phone as a resonating chamber according to the company. We've not had a chance to fully test it, but it sure sounded sweet in the short clips we've heard.
But HTC is also marching on relentlessly, improving the headphone experience of the HTC U11. Some will be sad to hear that there's no 3.5mm headphone socket, but the bundled USonic headphones are better than your average bundled headphones, so that's not a great loss.
They also offer a number of advantages. As before, HTC uses its USonic feature to tune the headphones to your ears and the environment around. This tuning from HTC is a little more detailed than the equivalent service that you get on Samsung's phones - and it's more overt too, as it will prompt you to tune the headset when you connect it.
New on the HTC U11 is active noise cancellation. We've not had the chance to fully test this, but we suspect it works in the same way as Sony has in the past, i.e., that you have to use the HTC headphones with HTC's phone to get it to work.
For those who do want to use existing 3.5mm headphones, HTC is bundling the adapter in the box, meaning you can hook right up. You also don't miss out on some of the goodness, as the adapter contains a DAC - digital-analogue converter - that promises to make your music sound even better. This is universal, so could be used with other USB Type-C devices too, but that does mean it's a little larger than you might want it to be.
HTC U11: The return of the UltraPixel camera
- 16-megapixel front camera, f/2.0, 150 degree wide angle
- 12-megapixel rear camera, 0.3 second AF, OIS, 1.4µm pixels, f/1.7
The HTC 10 offered a reasonable camera experience, as did the HTC U Ultra, so the HTC U11 is starting in a good place. There's a 12-megapxiel rear camera, with 1.4µm pixels, which are nice and large to capture more light. There's a maximum aperture of f/1.7 and optical image stabilisation. Basically, HTC is hitting all the hardware points you'd want it to, with HTC calling it UltraPixel 3.
The camera promises to be fast, with 0.3 second autofocusing, but also using its power to give you constant, lag-free automatic HDR, to make your photos look better. The ability to squeeze the phone to launch the camera, and then squeeze to take a photo also looks like a benefit and first impressions are good.
The camera app looks a lot like previous versions of the HTC camera and we haven't had the chance to fully test it yet.
The front camera is now a 16-megapixel sensor, offering a 150-degree wide angle to get everything in it, as well as an f/2.0 aperture. Again, we'll need more time with it before we can draw any conclusions about its performance.
On the video front, the big change here is 3D audio, captured using the four mics around the phone's body. These will now zoom with the camera, so that the music fits what you're looking at.
The HTC U11 takes a few steps to make itself different to everything else. The colour schemes and finish are unique to the rear, even if the front of the phone looks a lot like it did last year. Sure, some will say the colour doesn't matter because you'll need a cover on it anyway, but the HTC U11 really is spectacular with its liquid surface finish.
The addition of waterproofing is a long time overdue and it's great to see HTC keeping up with the Joneses; the addition of active noise cancellation on top to the excellent USonic experience will likely see the HTC U11 as one of the best sounding phones around, if you're happy to use HTC's headphones.
Then you have squeezing, which no one else offers, but is perhaps the easiest thing to dismiss as a gimmick. But it works from what we've seen, providing another route to interaction with your device. We've still a lot to learn, but we're encouraged by what we see. The HTC U11 looks like it offers enough to take the fight to its rivals, even if it puts the gloss on the rear of the body, rather than into the display.
The HTC U11 will be available from 18 May in some territories, and we'd expect the 64GB version to cost around £649 in the UK.